CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation
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Playing Politics (the 1980s)
From the beginning, CPTV saw politics and public affairs programming as a critical part of its educational mandate. “The Fourth Estate,” a weekly mainstay of the network’s schedule for more than 25 years, debuted in 1964 and soon introduced longtime host Joseph Steinberg, a West Hartford attorney, leading a panel discussion on the burning issues of the day. CPTV also began hosting on-air political debates and inaugurated coverage of the state General Assembly in session in 1964, which by the 1970s—thanks to enthusiastic CEO Paul Taff—had grown to include regular live broadcasts of almost every significant political event in Connecticut.
Bob Douglas (CPTV legislative/political reporter, 1978-1995): During the 1980s, I covered the legislature, state government and Connecticut politics full-time. We did all of the state political conventions. In those days, CPTV broadcast such events gavel-to-gavel, as well as the major elections. I anchored virtually every major U.S. senate and gubernatorial debate. It was a great time, particularly for a political junkie reporter like me, who later became press secretary for the state house Democrats.
Patty McQueen (CPTV intern/producer, 1980-1985): We had a pretty robust public-affairs department. At one point, we aired “The Fourth Estate” back-to-back Thursday nights with “The People’s Caucus,” a live, hour-long interview and call-in show hosted by Bob Douglas. Everyone on the “Fourth Estate” panel picked a topic for each week, and they would talk about whatever was in the news: someone’s re-election chances, whatever the budget was going to be, a particular piece of legislation.
Steve Kotchko (CPTV host/political commentator, 1980s-present): Joe Steinberg was very into the media and freedom-of-information issues; I think that was his background. He primarily had newspaper editors on his panel, people like Chris Powell of the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Sherman London from the Waterbury Republican-American, a couple of people from the New London Day, as well as James Cutie, who was a state capitol reporter. I don’t remember how I got involved; I think they wanted to get a few younger people into the mix. Once I became a regular, I guess people at CPTV figured I understood the most in the group about broadcasting. Because Joe could get pretty busy with his legal activities, at least once a month I’d get a call from CPTV in the afternoon saying, “You weren’t supposed to be on this week, but Joe just called from the courthouse, and he’s stuck there and can’t make the show. Can you fill in as host?” So I started alternating between host and panelist. Ultimately, what happened with Joe was, he decided he wanted to become a Superior Court judge, and that’s when I became full-time host.
Patty McQueen: Bob Douglas would invite whoever he deemed interesting that week to guest on “Caucus.” We had people like Dick Bozzuto and Gerry Labriola when they were both running for governor, Bill O’Neill, Toby Moffett. Bob was the master of the smooth interview, even when someone seemed antagonistic. The place could be on fire, and Bob would wink at somebody in the off-camera and all would be okay. He knew everything about these guys, and even with somebody he may not have particularly liked, he’d just schmooze his way through and get what he needed.
Bob Douglas: In the fall of the 1982 U.S. Senate race, we did a series of six debates with Lowell Weicker and Toby Moffett in each of the state’s congressional districts, which were a great deal of fun. I don’t think the two men particularly liked each other at the time—they were both aggressive, opinionated people. I thought there was nobody better to cover than Lowell Weicker. He had strong opinions on issues; he wasn’t afraid, and he enjoyed the give-and-take of debating.
Patty McQueen: I believe those debates were the only ones Weicker and Moffett did that campaign. They were very high-profile. I remember that the debate in Fairfield drew David Broder, from The Washington Post, and a number of other national political reporters from all over the place. We did one in Farmington at the UConn Medical School, and when we went out to dinner, the union folks who supported Moffett got into the room and filled up all the seats. The Weicker people couldn’t find any, and they were pissed. So we had this battle going on, and we had to go live at 8 p.m. At one point, the fire marshal came out to our mobile truck and said, “Until you clear out some of these people, you can’t go on the air.” After a couple of minutes of yelling at each other, we just went live and decided to sort it out with the fire marshal later. He continued to try to get us off the air, but there was a CPTV executive in the audience—it might have been Paul Taff—who said, “Don’t stop.”
Bob Douglas: Paul Taff was old school. He was a very strong supporter of CPTV covering the state government, no question about it.
Patty McQueen: The first political convention I ever went to was as a floor producer doing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Connecticut Democratic state convention for CPTV. In 1982, Lewis Rome was running for governor, and we did these “roll-in” segments on him—when you’re doing gavel-to-gavel you have a lot of time to fill. So we filmed these five-minute segments about, “This is where Lew comes from” and included little interviews with him. One day we did a site survey at his house, and there was this great little office full of books and knickknacks, just the perfect spot to do an interview. So we told him, “Okay, we’re going to come back, this is how we’re going to do this.” I show up with a crew some days later, we walk into this room and there’s nothing there. It looks like they’re moving out. I guess they thought, “If they’re going to do it here, we need to clean it up.” And the director, Jay Whitsett, looked at me and said, “What the hell happened? What made you think this was a good room?” I don’t remember what we finally did; I think we just found another location. I mainly remember that Jay wanted to kill me.
Steve Kotchko: When CPTV was in its heyday of covering political conventions and campaigns, it was the only network doing that, for the most part. The commercial TV stations sometimes made an attempt to cover the Democratic and Republican state conventions, but they didn’t air them on a regular basis. And when it came to debates—if there’s a hot U.S. Senate or gubernatorial race, the news directors want a piece of the action, but they’re not going to cover every congressional district. Whereas CPTV made a point of airing at least one debate in each district, sometimes more. They also did a lot of so-called “town halls” on a variety of issues, long before it became a presidential campaign strategy.
Bob Douglas: I consider that period the golden age of Connecticut Public Television, because it had such a strong local focus. When I was there, we had full-time public affairs producers and cultural affairs producers. The sad thing is I watch public television less today, because its local character has changed. I feel very fortunate that I was working in public television at that time.